The foreign ministry mandarins in South Block miscalculated hugely when India cold-shouldered K P Sharma Oli in the run-up to the general elections in Nepal. Oli, too, followed a shrill anti-India stance during the election campaign. Left-winger Oli swept to power with a massive mandate last February and is firmly ensconced in the prime ministerial chair while India now holds out an olive branch to him.
It is a measure of the dependence of Nepal on India that despite holding a grudge against New Delhi for having openly sided with his critics, Oli has visited India on a fence-mending mission soon after assuming office. Known for his pro-China tilt, Oli said on his recent three-day visit that he had come to India with an aim to enhance relations to newer heights and build a strong edifice of “trust-based” relationship.
But by its myopic and ill-thought-out policy, India has given Beijing a toehold in Nepal which it is bound to exploit to the hilt. So far, 70 per cent of Nepal’s imports have been coming from India, but now things are changing. With the increasing footprint of China, a potentially big slice of trade will go to the Chinese and to that extent India would be a loser.
The Chinese have already secured Nepal’s consent to their Belt and Road initiative and consequently moved Kathmandu away from India’s near-exclusive orbit. Nepal will now get access to the rest of the world not through India alone but as much or more through China and Pakistan.
The symbiotic relationship between Nepal and India, therefore, stands compromised. India expects that the wily Chinese will enmesh Nepal in a debt trap just as China is doing with Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives but in the current mood, India’s warnings to be cautious are falling on deaf ears.
Gone are the days when India could browbeat Nepal into doing its bidding. That Big Brotherly attitude is passé. During Oli’s first stint as prime minister, his government had taken a hard stand against India for what it alleged was an ‘economic blockade’ that put his people into much hardship. India cobbled together a coalition of the Nepali Congress, Maoists and Madhesi forces to topple Oli, but now saner counsel has prevailed as the Modi government has seen the impact that Oli made on the people’s minds as reflected in the February election results.
Now, however, both sides are in a conciliatory mood. How long that would last is anybody’s guess. In a landmark decision taken at the New Delhi parleys, India will assist Nepal in developing inland waterway on its rivers that will connect with Indian waterways and provide Nepal additional access to sea. Apart from building connectivity, this new initiative will also help in the movement of cargo.
The electrified rail link between Raxaul and Kathmandu valley is expected to boost connectivity and trade. A detailed project report is underway which would finalise the implementation and funding modalities of the project based on the report.
India is already implementing Phase-I of the India-Nepal cross-border rail link projects. The stretch of railway lines from Jayanagar to Janakpur / Kurtha and from Jogbani to Biratnagar Custom Yard under first phase is expected to be completed by this year-end. The ongoing final location survey of the three links under Phase-II of the India-Nepal cross-border rail link projects — New Jalpaiguri-Kakarbhitta, Nautanwa-Bhairahawa, and Nepalgunj Road-Nepalgunj — too is expected to be complete soon.
In agriculture, India will undertake a pilot project on organic farming and soil health improvement. Prime Minister Modi mentioned to Oli his Government’s initiative of providing soil health cards for the farmers and how that can be replicated in Nepal too.
Nepal is insisting that long-stalled projects like the Pancheshwar (multipurpose hydropower) and Mahakali project be completed on priority. India had, for some time, been dragging its feet on these projects but now with a clearer political direction there is hope that the much-delayed projects will be speeded up.
Oli’s normalisation of ties with India following his State visit will not be without roadblocks. Any perceived Indian quest to stop the growing Chinese involvement would evoke oblique and covert moves by China to distance Nepal from India. The Chinese are working to a plan and have been nibbling at India’s support base among the neighbours with a geo-strategic objective. Strenuous efforts are on to move closer to Sri Lanka after the success of its efforts to use the Pakistanis as their loyal pawn.
The manner in which a tiny country like Maldives cocked a snook at India by declining India’s invitation to join naval exercises while nine other countries were doing so could only come about because Maldives President Abdulla Yameen had the solid backing of China in snubbing India.
By swallowing its insult, India has averted Chinese intervention on behalf of Maldives but the seeds that Yameen has sown bode ill for the future of Indo-Maldivian relations. Sooner than later, India will have to show the Chinese that it cannot and will not countenance Chinese interference in its region. In this endeavour, a conciliatory Indian stand in dealing with the Oli regime in Nepal could be a potent starting point.
The Chinese would hold out all kinds of baits to Nepal and that country can only thwart those if it has full support of India and the US. The cold reality is that New Delhi’s entire rapprochement with Oli has come at the cost of Madhesi rights (Madhesis are people of Indian origin who settled down in Nepal’s Terai region over the years). Today, in making up with Oli, India has dropped the agenda of a constitutional amendment to address issues of federal re-demarcation, which was at the heart of a prolonged India-backed agitation in 2015-16 . This has stoked much resentment among the Madhesis against India. But India has to keep its own strategic interests in mind and those lie in wooing the new Nepalese government to wean it away from excessive dependence on China.
Kamlendra Kanwar is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.